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2008 Ford Focus test drive

Ford's European car gets an American makeover

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating
User Rating 4.5 Star Rating (2 Reviews)

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2008 Ford Focus sedan front view

2008 Ford Focus sedan

Photo © Aaron Gold

What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

The Ford Focus has been redesigned for 2008, and owners of 2007 and older Focii will barely recognize the new car. New styling inside and out, a new model lineup, and a new two-door coupe are hallmarks of the 2008 Ford Focus. But what made the old Focus so appealing was its European-bred road manners. Does the new Focus measure up to its predecessor? Read on. $14,695 base, $19,210 as tested, EPA fuel economy 24 MPG city, 33-35 MPG highway.

First Glance: All-new -- at least the stuff you can see

Larger photos: Front - rear

Technically, the all-new Focus isn't all new. The '08 Focus is based on the last-generation Focus, first introduced in 1999. While the original Focus was virtually identical to the version sold in Europe, the two cars went their separate ways in 2005 when Europe got an all-new Focus and we got a watered-down styling job on the existing car. For 2008 the North American Focus takes a sharp right turn, ditching three of its four body styles -- 3- and 5-door hatchbacks and wagon -- and adding a two-door coupe.

Normally I'd lament the lack of new underpinnings, but in the case of the Focus, it's not such a bad thing. Long in the tooth as it was, the Focus was always a magnificent driver's car. (It was, after all, engineered primarily in Europe.) The new Focus attempts to improve on the old with modifications to the suspension and steering. Whether it succeeds is something we'll get to shortly.

First things first: Let's talk about the new look. The Focus gets all new styling stem to stern, with the most notable elements being Ford's trademark chrome grille (albeit with two bars instead of the usual three; the Focus' proboscis isn't big enough for a third bar). Out back, the roofline has been altered to tone down the tall, narrow look of the old car. For me, the jury's still out on the styling. I didn't fall in love right away, but the Focus grew on me the more I looked at it.

The 2008 Focus is available in three trim levels: S, SE and SES. Pricing stars at $14,695 for the S coupe and $14,995 for the S sedan, with a $1,000 bump for each trim level.

In the Driver's Seat: New interior, neat gadgets

2008 Ford Focus dashboard

Dash styling was inspired by the Ford Mustang

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

The Focus gets an all-new interior with improved seats and a jazzed-up dash. Instruments are lit in blue, while an optional ambient lighting package provides user-selectable colors for the footwells and drink holders. Air conditioning comes standard, but power locks and mirrors only come with SE and SES models.

The front seats are comfy and the back seat is roomier than it looks thanks to a tall seating position and plenty of foot space under the front seats; still, it's not as spacious as the Civic sedan. Interestingly, the coupe's back seat is almost as roomy as the sedan's, though headroom is lacking in both. The biggest omission: No headrests. That means your back seat passengers stand a higher chance of whiplash in a rear-end collision.

By far the neatest feature is the optional Sync system, developed with Microsoft, which provides integration with media players and Bluetooth phones. "What's the big deal about that?" you ask. It's this: Sync allows you to control your audio player using voice commands. So rather than fumbling with the controls, you can say "Next track" or "Play artist Devo", and your iPod or Zune will comply. Plus, the phone system allows you to send and recieve text messages; it comes pre-programmed with useful one-liners like "Be there in 10 minutes", "I need directions," and "I love you". Sending them requires a brief diversion of one's eyes from the road to the Sync display, but it sure beats trying to type a message on your phone while driving. Sync even reads incoming text messages out loud. The price for Sync? Just $395.

On the Road: Some things never change

One of the highlights of the outgoing Focus was the fun-to-drive factor. Happily, that's one thing that hasn't changed. Where the old car was bouncy and playful, the new one is a bit more mature and buttoned down, yet still involving and enjoyable. Driving on unfamiliar roads in Seattle, I didn't have a chance to press the Focus to its limits, but I did take it through the bends at a pretty good clip and was impressed by how well it clung to the road.

Under the hood you'll find the familiar two-liter four-cylinder engine; improvements include a drive-by-wire throttle and a slight bump in horsepower (from 136 to 140; torque is unchanged at 136 lb-ft). My test car had a 5-speed manual transmission, an outstanding gearbox with great shifter feel and a light, easy-to-modulate clutch. A 4-speed automatic is optional ($815). I found the Focus to have plenty of zip, with power usefully concentrated at middle engine speeds. A Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) version is available in states that adhere to California emissions standards. PZEV buyers get slightly less horsepower and torque (136 and 133 respectively) but a cleaner conscience. I didn't drive far enough to get a meaningful mileage number, but the EPA figures -- 24 MPG city/33 highway for the manual, 24/35 for the automatic -- are impressive.

The '08 Focus comes with front-seat-mounted side airbags and two-row side curtain airbags. Antilock brakes are optional. (UPDATE: As of the 2009 model year, antilock brakes come bundled with electronic stability control for $745. Consider this a must-have option.)

Journey's End: Well what do you know, they did it

2008 Ford Focus sedan rear view

2008 Ford Focus sedan

Photo © Aaron Gold

As you can tell, I really like the new Focus. It's delightful to drive and the Sync system is very cool. Though I will miss the hatchback, the new coupe makes a nice consolation prize and the fact that it gives up virtually no back seat or trunk space to the sedan is an added bonus.

So how does the Focus stack up to the competition? The Focus undercuts the Honda Civic and the Nissan Sentra on price, but both are better equipped (including antilock brakes for the Civic). The Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cobalt -- both good cars, though less visually interesting than the Focus -- come similarly equipped to the Focus S; the Corolla costs a bit more and the Cobalt a bit less. Keep in mind that you'll most likely be able to negotiate a better deal on the domestics.

I must admit that I was skeptical of Ford's ability to build a competitive compact using such an old platform -- but much to my amazement, they've done it. By keeping the Focus' fun-to-drive factor and adding standard must-haves (air conditioning, side curtain airbags) and optional nice-to-haves (Sync system, leather seats), they've created a car that can hold it's own against the latest crop of compacts. Frankly, the lack of rear seat headrests is probably the car's biggest flaw, and something you should definitely keep in mind if you plan to haul adults back there. Other than that, if you're in the market for a Civic or a Corolla, you should definitely test drive the Ford Focus. I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised -- I sure was. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 5 out of 5
2009 Ford Focus Diesel, Member MMcdowell999

I just rented a 2009 Ford Focus Diesel 5 speed in the UK and was getting better than 50mpg! Great car too, which surprised me. Tent camping through Europe with four people was a bit tight, but managed OK.

9 out of 12 people found this helpful.

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